The Stella di Mare Complex
At Ain Soukhna along the Northern Red Sea Coast
(Live From the Longchamps Days eleven and Twelve)
by Jimmy Dunn
When I first started to come to Egypt, there were really only two mainstream beach resorts for average tourists. They consistied of upscale Sharm el-Shiekh on the southern tip of the Sinai, and Hurghada on the mainland Egyptian Red Sea coast. They have changed and grown during the years, but they do retain much of their original flavor. A large part of their differences are defined by the board walk at Sharm, which is absent in Hurghada. Essentially, this means that the beach is relatively open in Sharm with the boardwalk separating it from the hotels and shops, whereas at Hurghada the beach is segregated amongst the various hotels, so that one has a tendency to remain in one resort rather than wondering about like at Sharm. Of course, even then there were less mainstream locations such as Taba, Nuweiba and Dahab on the Sinai Coast, and El-Gouna, along with camp-like locations on the Red Sea Coast. Of these, only Taba and particularly very upscale El-Gouna had good, high quality hotels.
Today, this is changing very rapidly and no where is this more evident then along the coast at Ain Soukhna, which really turns out to be a brilliant location. Now only a little over an hour and a half drive out of Cairo, a much shorter distance than taking the desert road from Luxor to Hurghada, Ain Soukhna offers a very quick trip for tourists to the Red Sea, and after a new road is finished, the drive will be shorter still. Furthermore, it offers several sightseeing opportunities, including the Suez Canal only a short distance north, and the famous monasteries of the Eastern Desert, consisting of St. Anthony's and St. Paul's.
We started out for Ain Soukhna yesterday (March 2, 2004) just after 2:00 pm and it took us just about as long to get out of Cairo as it did to get to the Red Sea. Of course, we were racing along at up to 180 kilometers, almost twice the legal speed limit. Along this road, there is not much really to see, other than the occasional military instillation or small construction project. Not that the road is isolated by any means, as there are gas stations and small stores along the way. The traffic was sparse, but I should imaging this changes dramatically on the weekend. This is the road that leads first to Suez at the southern tip of the Suez Canal, so a visit to this great monument of construction would have been very easy. However, we turned off on the Red Sea coastal road just prior to Suez, which is the same road that would eventually lead one through El-Gouna to Hurghada and points south. Even though we did not stop to visit the canal, there were a concentration of large ships visible just off the coast which had only recently gone through the locks. For us, the road trip was rapidly nearing its end.
These days, all along this section of the coast are new developments, often referred to as compounds, for most are complexes of condos, usually two or more hotels and some subsidiary stores and restaurants, the whole property being owned by a single interest. This area has traditionally been a quick getaway for Egyptians from Cairo, together with others who work along the Red Sea coast. However the hotels were not long ago all rather quaint. That has all changed now, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than at Stella di Mare, our destination.
Upon entering this compound the first sight of the complex was not promising, with much construction taking place. However, as we drove through these recent additions, the complex took on a more finished look. There were nice condos here together with two vary fine hotels. One is the four star Planhotel with its many bungalows, while the other is the five star Swiss Inn.
In recent years, the Egyptian government has been promoting therapeutic tourism and this is one of the reasons that Hebba, who owns the Hotel Longchmaps, decided to go along with us. We barely made it in time for her appointment, so upon arrival, we had no time to check in but headed directly to the Thalasso Spa in the five star hotel, where she would receives some treatments. For myself, I had only once in my life had a professional message, and this seemed as good a time as any for my second.
Upon my return from Egypt, I will write a complete review of all these facilities, but for now, I can say that the spa offered all sorts of services, from nutritional programs to various types of massages. This is a large, modern facility with various types of therapeutic equipment spread out in a relaxing but professional atmosphere. The staff is likewise very professional, though equally as pleasant. My one hour massage literally put me to sleep.
I spent some time afterward attempting to photograph this large complex and then we had dinner in their Italian restaurant. This facility is frequented by Italian groups, and so the food here was both authentic and tasty. Afterwards, we had a few drinks in the Sailor's bar at the Swiss Inn before finally checking into the Planhotel.
I was impressed. My bungalow at this four star facility was easily as good as many five star hotels where I have stayed, and cost only about $30 USD. The bedroom was spacious, as was the private bath, and it included all of the expected amenities, including direct dial telephone, cable television, a balcony, mini-fridge, safe box and hairdryer. It was quiet, and I slept very well in the king size bed after the long day and the massage.
The next day, I awoke and took breakfast at their complete and free buffet. Not only were there pastries, eggs, sausage, hash brown potatoes, but a cook stood ready to make fresh French pancakes and omelets. Afterwards, I set about taking more photos. The Planhotel has a large artificial lake that winds through the facilities and were birds drifted about. The property is well landscaped and there are two different pools for the guests, as well as other outdoor amenities, such as a gym. I am very sure that I probably missed other features, but it was time to head to the five star Swiss Inn. What the Planhotel lacks is a beachfront, but its residents can take a small train, or simply walk as I did to the five star's beach. What surprised me was the size of the beach.
Each of the compounds along Ain Soukhna, like the hotels at Hurghada, have their own private beaches and like them, I expected to find a respectable length of beach front, though certainly limited. What I found seemed to stretch forever. I could, in fact, make out its northern boundaries, but after walking for some distance, I never reached its southern limits. Along the way, I found beach bars, surprisingly good sail boat rentals, day car centers and more, with comfortable lounge chairs and a forest of beach umbrellas. The waters are known to be pristine, though I could not see too far out because of a light haze. And if the sea is not enough, there is also a vast swimming pool sporting its own island.
Needless to say, I will be writing more about Ain Soukhna and this complex specifically. This is not by any means the end of this story and we will in fact be writing a whole series including complete reviews after my return home. Many tourists, including those taking pharaonic tours, wish to take in at least a short visit to the Red Sea and so they make the long drive from Luxor to Hurghada. However, Ain Soukhna offers a much more convenient experience, with the added attractions of the nearby Suez Canal and two of Egypt's most famous ancient monasteries. Add to this the Thereaputic resources, and the soon to be completed golf course, its modest price (even the five star hotel had superior rooms during the week for a mere $50 USD), and this destination begins to look very attractive indeed, though I must point out that it does lack scuba diving facilities.
We began the journey home about noon, and stopped just outside the complex for some KFC (we also had our choice of Pizza Hut). After making the first big checkpoint, I did something that I had always insisted I would never do in Egypt. Looking for trouble, as usual, I took control of a deadly weapon; the Jeep I was riding in. Though I have been coming to Egypt now for more years then I can remember, this was my first time behind the wheel of a car. As many of my readers probably know, traffic in Cairo is frequently miserable, and driving in it requires a special art form. However, the road between Suez and Cairo was not so bad in midweek, and though completely illegal, I convinced Hebba to let me give it a try. Actually, I got adjusted to it fairly soon. One cannot be too relaxed, for even on this open road there was considerable weaving in and out, two lanes trying to be made into three, along with some bad spots and some road construction. Really, my only concern was being pulled over at any of a number of checkpoints that we passed, and at one point I even had a police unit behind me for some time. Neither of us were very sure what the outcome would have been had I been pulled over. However, I drove into the outskirts of Cairo before finally pulling over and relinquishing control. Even then I think I could have easily kept going for some time, but there were more checkpoints ahead and we were afraid of testing my luck much further. Though I still cannot recommend driving in Cairo, I think prior to my next visit I will be the proud owner of an international driver's license, and then Cairo had better look out for the boy who's normal driving experience is in a laid back West Texas town.
As a final, sad note, I would like to apologize to the Egyptomaniacs, our local BBS crowd, for not being able to attend a gathering this evening. While this trip to Ain Soukhna is not difficult at all, coming back to Cairo, writing a story about it, selecting a dozen images from the hundreds that I took, editing them and getting the whole thing uploaded on the net has taken a little more time then I expected. Then I must still get to at least some of my email and make a relatively early wakeup call for tomorrow's meetings. The loss is mine, as I was looking forward to seeing all of you this evening.
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Last Updated: July 18th, 2011